Friday, August 29, 2014

Shaving My Head in Varanasi, India & the Story of Mannat

Early morning prayers and hygiene in the ghats of Ganges
STORY: Three years ago, my head was shaved off in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh in India. Three weeks later, when i arrived back home in Manila, my family and friends got the shock of their lives when they saw me, with zero hair.

Head shaving is an important, if not, holy custom in India and by doing so, you offer a promise to Mannat, for a wish will be fulfilled through prayer and offering. You alleviate all pride and arrogance acquired by living on earth and show your humility and purity through this remarkable deed. 

To say that shaving your head in India is cliche is unfair. And only those who've been to India can only attest to its great importance. For those whose family member died or have a grave sin to confess, it is the perfect opportunity to pray and be heard. There are thousands of pilgrims from all around the world who travel to India, and to Varanasi, still with their awesome hair intact. However, when it came to a decision time for me. I was ready and prepared. I stayed four nights in Varanasi, my longest in any Indian destination at that time. On my last day, the barber picked up a new blade which i requested and confirmed afterwards and began cleansing it with isopropyl alcohol. It was six thirty in the chilly November morning. I squat in one of the ghats as my mentor prepared my hair's primary execution. I was nervous a bit, but my excitement got the best of me. I was waiting for this for a very long time. It's time. My hair was eleven inches long, grown of dust and smog from this beautiful yet polluted country. I closed my eyes the whole time, not really praying to be honest, but transporting my mind and my body to the river, a few meters away from where i am, being shaved off by a local Indian man whose eyes i can never forget. It's that sort of meditation that i am fond of.  

I stood up, finding the weight out of my knees and paid the man 100 rupees. I opened my eyes and looked at the river. It's calmness was enveloped by the pilgrims bathing. I thanked the man for the life-changing act and walked around for a bit more until my feet got tired. Nobody looked at me anymore. I figured, they know why i did what i did, and it's all that matters. I dust off a few more pieces of my old hair from my body. I was totally free of my past.

A pack of cigarettes side by side with offerings to the holy river
This place, Varanasi, is very ironical. A few days ago, i saw a three month old baby being carried by his mother whose skin bleached to deep brown from the heat of the sun. The baby's nails were long and dirty. 

EXCLUSIVE: Later that afternoon, as i walked to the holy Ganges, i stumbled upon a man dying. He was a troubled soul, and may have walked for days to get to where i am standing. I saw him die in front of me. On his last breath, i was looking at him. I closed my eyes and prayed for his soul to go to heaven, or Varanasi, or a good after life in the Ganges river. It's not every day that you see a man die in front of you. But i knew, he was ready to give up life.

People preparing for the festival of lights in Varanasi
The decision to shave my head started out when i arrived in Varanasi from a sixteen hour train ride from New Delhi. People were already preparing for the Festival of the Lights or Dev Deepawali. I could feel the energy from the people seeping through my veins as i walked, and obviously out of place. On one occasion, i met a store owner who asked me to sit next to him. Believing he would sell stuff, he surprised me by offering a cup of tea for free. We people watched as he explained what the festival is about, and how Varanasi is unlike anywhere in the world. He said to me straight in the eye, "You're a troubled soul." I left an hour later, still thinking if he asked me to join him to sell carpet or because he saw my pain and seeking enlightenment from the gods.  

One of the many sleepless nights during Dev Deepawali
The excitement continued on and lasted until the next day. I walked again and stumbled upon a Bubba who asked me to share his stick of blunt. He said that during these few occasions, only then can he smoke Marijuana. I politely declined and shared Kingfisher beer with him instead. He told me, "Live your life not tomorrow, now". 

Before i slept that night, i was trying to recall what has happened in the past few days, and what i want to do in the days to come. These turn of events got me to think how and why these instances happen, and if these do happen for a reason. Then, only destiny can predict what i will do next. 

Clean shaven and enlightened
I came up to this man whose palms were carefully carving a young boy's shapely head. I said, "I'm next". And his face lit up in surprise. The other men beside him gave him ample space to work on me. 

I will never forget this experience. In ten, twenty or even thirty years from hereon, i will keep on remembering this precious moment. I know I've been troubled but i also know, i am still living my life amidst, and that is true enlightenment.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Gunung Merapi: The Most Active Volcano in Indonesia and the Adventure to Selo Pass

No red orange sun but Gunung Merapi was spectacular
STORY: I didn't go to Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park even if i was already in Malang. People say it's absurd but I had one awesome reason why and it's only one word. 


I am not a loner, but reading stories of how hundreds upon hundreds of people make the trek to the summit every single day and have their picture taken by hustling other people, made me look elsewhere. I was looking for a more spiritual experience while glancing upon what Indonesia is most famous for, its immeasurable number of volcanoes. I told myself i have to pick the best out of the bunch.

I was in Yogjakarta then. Six nights have passed and i am still enjoying the beautiful city. It's an awesome base for trips, and dare i say, my most favorite city in Java. But i needed an adventure to get more active. I was searching for places nearby Jogja and Solo (Surakarta) for where i could head next. I had trouble finding trip advises for Gunung Merapi  but i thought, i had to go to Selo and sort my way to the 2911 meter volcano.

The Selo bound bus aged but still works as it ascends the highway
The next morning, i was on a bus bound for Magelang. After listening to one performer on board and clapping to one of the best live performances I've ever heard in my life, i met a local Muslim girl who helped me find my way to Bayolali. We alighted at Mungkad junction and rode an angkot bound for Bayolali. We said goodbye by shaking hands. From here, it was a very steep, often times nerve-wracking endless ascent to the last village up Merapi, Selo, via an uninspiring bus and a dodgy built motorcycle. 

A local family enjoying the mid afternoon breeze in Old Selo town
I arrived at Selo Pass hungry, disturbed by the sudden change of elevation and obviously needed warmer clothes. I've experienced sun, rain, wind and smoke belch from trucks fully loaded with logged trees. But there she was, Gunung Merapi, more beautiful but dangerous in person. It's actually called "Mountain of Fire" erupting more than 68 times since 1548.

I spent the next 2 days sitting on the porch, drinking my hot tea and looking at her. Sometimes, i would walk thirty minutes to the town and buy my supplies of water and snacks. I made sure to make mental notes wherever i go so i can remember. 

EXCLUSIVE: Oh, and i forgot to mention that I've experienced mighty tremors during the night. Two of which woke me up from sleep, and one made me run away from the shower room naked. The next day, a little birdie told me that my greatest fear is actual real, Merapi is showing signs of erupting. That day, i left to seek shelter on a more safe zone. That explains why i haven't seen a single tourist in two days, and three of the hotels that i've passed by had no guests. In my 40-room hotel, i was the lone guest and the caretaker surprised that i showed up. I was able to drop the room price to 30% lower. It pays to seek advice from the tourism office.

A normal daily routine in Selo amidst the warning of Mt. Merapi's possible eruption
Maybe, i am an animist but i usually talk to natural spirits and non-living things like Mount Merapi. I thanked her for sparing me from obvious disaster and that i will cherish the short-lived moment i had with her. It's not everyday that you get to see what you read so i thank the gods for making this happen for me. 

TIPS: Mt. Merapi or Gurung Merapi is obviously one of the most beautiful places you will ever see in the Indonesian archipelago. Staying in Selo Pass is not for the faint heart as it's obviously at the foot of the most active volcano in the country. Check travel advisory everyday as seismic changes and movements occur more frequently since November 2013. Hire a motorcycle driver to get you around town or alternatively, walk like i did. 

RECOMMENDATIONS: When it's not late October to early April, you may hike up the summit provided that weather is fine and more importantly, the volcano is at its non-erupting active phase. Get a reputable guide, which is very easy to find. Better yet, ask for Superman. Everyone knows who he is and i got recommendations from him on one of the treks i did. Stay at Selo Pass Hotel and get the first room in the more expensive floor. The view there is amazing, so is the gracious hotel keeper who made my stay less lonely. 

Enjoying a clear afternoon view of the mountain of fire, also known as Gunung Merapi

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Family of Monkeys in Dambulla, Sri Lanka

A family of Toque Macaque in Dambulla
STORY: Monkeys often elude me. It must have been the movie Outbreak that shifted my worldly view of this primate. I've experienced many unfortunate incidents with Monkeys. 

In Batu Caves of Gombak District in Malaysia, i was attacked by a dozen of them. All eyes were on my ice cold can of soft drinks. It was one o'clock in the afternoon then. The heat was exhausting, and i assume the monkeys have not had their lunch break. I threw my almost full drink in desperation. It's enough that i climbed up to 272 steps only to find out there are more of them inside the cave. 

A lone Macaque in one of the steps to Dambulla Cave Complex
In Ella of Uva Province in Sri Lanka, i seeked the help of a bystander to help me out get rid of a troop along the highway. Instead of riding the bus up and down the infamous highway, i decided to walk that day. It was a grueling and tiring walk but i managed like a pro. Halfway my climb up, i saw these wild creatures roaming around the trek point. Some where doing stunt tricks in the branches of the trees, others were simply people watching. It didn't help that i stumbled upon an angry dog with half of a monkey's body in his throat. I am not a fan of wild animals but right then, who am i to complain. I am visiting their territory. I am but a nobody. The man who was busy conversing on his mobile phone, pressed the dial tone and said goodbye to his girlfriend, got out of his car and accompanied me till i pass by the monkey corner. He waved his hands as a sign that i'm safe. 

But the real story here is about the family of monkeys in Dambulla of Matale District in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. As you climb up the tiring cave temple, you will see hundreds of them hanging around like little villagers. Later i found out that these breed of monkeys are called Toque Macaque, "Rilewa" in Singhala, and are endemic to Sri Lanka and more importantly, are currently endangered. 

Again, my fear grew as i try to avoid any contact within 50 meters, which is impossible considering there is only one route up and down. After two hours of praying and meditating on top, i was ready for more passive aggressive encounter. When i saw this family on one corner, my ultimate view shifted 180 degrees. It's not everyday that you get a more personal and intimate interaction with Macaques in the wild. Much more, when you see a complete family. This may sound too shallow but indeed, I've never felt more safe than with them. They are the most gentle monkeys I've ever encountered. They are simply at peace. I was unbelievably surprised. People take photographs, like myself. Some where even too close, the little animals had to run away in fear. Everyone was so happy to see these monkeys.
A Grey "Hanuman" Langur runs in style in Polannaruwa
I left after three days, and found myself in Polannaruwa in front of one of the greatest Buddhist structures of the world. There were a handful of the similar kind of monkeys but different. These are called Grey "Hanuman" Langur and are believed to be incarnations of Hindu monkey god, Hanuman. I found myself a little corner, sat and watched in admiration these beautiful species. These type are graceful, with pale gray coat, dark face and long eyelashes. Along came three after a few minutes and sat beside me. I didn't move a muscle out of fear, i looked at them, and we were eye to eye. I am home with my new found friends. 

TIPS: Avoid close contact with monkeys in the wild. If they feel threatened or annoyed, you're in bad luck. Never eat in front of them or show food in their presence. They are absolutely sensitive to odor, noise and/or shiny objects. Be friendly. 

RECOMMENDATIONS: In case of a monkey attack, throw your food in their direction right away. Get away as far as possible. If you don't have food, open your hands to show you don't have one. Put a barrier between you and the monkey to avoid physical contact. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Road Up / Down Sarangkot View Point in Pokhara, Nepal

The amazing curve towards Sarangkot View Point
STORY: People say it's not the destination that matters, it's the actual journey. True! The road up and down Sarangkot of Kaski District Gandaki Zone just above Pokhara in Nepal summed up all my expectations of what an epic journey should be. After one unforgettable sunrise beaming over the Annapurna range, it's time for me to go back to the city with yet, one unforgettable ride.

I met a Spanish traveler who drove up a few hours ahead to catch the sunrise, and managed a deal with a taxi driver going back to Pokhara. Needless to say, my PR skills worked, and a few minutes later, i found myself riding at the back of a dilapidated Russian vehicle. I got a ride for free. With all windows down, my excitement grew as we started our initial descent from a 1,592 meter elevation which is that of the Shiva temple. The early morning breeze was enough to make me chill as i slide from corner to corner as the car zig-zagged from left to right. It's one of those rare instances where i felt i shouldn't be doing this, but glad that i actually did. And a cigarette break after would be perfectly excused. I couldn't imagine myself riding up in this highway in the wee hours of the morning because there are no post lamps to guide drivers. Good thing i stayed at the view point for one night. But what i felt that morning during the ride was unexplained. I think it's the sudden gush of adrenaline for a ride like this can be called only one thing...epic.

Locals clear the tree branches in the road path to Sarangkot
Because the driver seemed like he was on a epic race as well, we arrived in main Pokhara in less than an hour. I said goodbye to my new found Spanish compaƱero, the amazing race car driver and the blessed dilapidated car. All is awesome and safe here in Sarangkot!

TIPS: It would be wise to share a taxi up and down the view point. Expect to pay anything from 700-1500 NPR. Those who are more physically active can hike for an hour and of course, it's free, but my estimates show more likely you'll need 2 hours. Alternatively, you can catch a local bus which plies with no schedule at all. Get a local sim card to coordinate with your driver.

RECOMMENDATIONS: There are dozens of cars traveling en route to catch the sunrise at the view point, passing this highway, so it's doable. However, the road condition and absence of light at night can be dangerous. It's highly recommended to travel to the view point in the afternoon to catch sunset and stay overnight. You may leave early in the morning after the sunrise. 

Road condition need development in Sarangkot

Monday, August 25, 2014

The New Beginning of Pinoy Boy Journals

One selfie moment in Borobodur Temple Complex in Indonesia
I really, really wanted to delete this blog...for good. Seven years of inspiring people to travel the world was more than enough time for me to write stories online. I don't make my money out of this joint, and i haven't written a prose in a year. It's technically, uhmm, a dead site. 

The train speeding away from Haputale to Nuwara Eliya was enchanting, and the scenery from the observation deck was so damn beautiful. I decided on so many things during the six-hour Sri Lankan epic train ride because i have nothing else to do. One of those spur of the moment decisions was to part ways with PBJ. I know it's sad but i was so ready to let this humble blog of mine go.

Later that night, I arrived at my next destination in Kandi. I was so hungry and tired. It was raining big time, and i just discovered that the hotel i booked was non-existing. When i finally settled at another guesthouse in the neighboring town of Peradeniya that's 70% cheaper with more amazing people, that's when it hit me that all of these crazy things happened in less than 24 hours. 

Since 2007, I've been traveling alone. And this trip is, well... you guessed right, solo as well. But what happened that day were all too miserably beautiful and memorable to keep only to myself. It's that simple. 

And just like that, as i puffed a cigarette on the balcony of Paradise Inn, while drying my wet underpants, i finally made a life-changing decision. It's time for me to make a full come back and share more of these interesting stories on this blog. 

Hence, the new beginning of Pinoy Boy Journals.